Christopher Sheels was born enslaved in 1776, the second child of Alce (likely pronounced “Al-sie”), an enslaved spinner at Mansion House Farm. Her other children included Anna, Judy, Viner, Ariana (who died in 1778 as an infant), Emery, Tom, Charles, and Henrietta (or Emenetta). By 1799 Alce had married a free black man named Charles.1

In 1789 thirteen-year-old Sheels was among the eight enslaved people taken from Mount Vernon to serve in Washington’s presidential household in New York. He likely worked as a waiter. When the capital moved to Philadelphia a year later, he was also among those whom Washington secretly rotated out of Pennsylvania to avoid the 1780 law allowing enslaved people to claim their freedom after six months’ residency in the state.

In September 1791, Sheels was sent back to Mount Vernon, where he began working as a carpenter.2 When Washington and his family returned to Virginia after his second term ended in 1797, Sheels was transferred back to the house and assumed the position of Washington’s valet, or personal manservant. As valet, Sheels—like William Lee before him—wore a white-and-red livery suit and looked after Washington’s daily needs.

Three incidents in Sheels’s life illuminate the complex web of intimacy and dependence, trust and suspicion that characterized the relationship between master and enslaved valet. On October 9, 1797, Sheels was bitten by a rabid dog, possibly Nelly Custis’s spaniel, Frisk, who later died. Fearing that his valet had been exposed to the disease, Washington decided to send Sheels to William Stoy, a physician who claimed to treat hydrophobia (rabies) with his signature “Stoy’s Drops.” Stoy lived in Lebanon, Pennsylvania, more than 150 miles away.

In a letter that Sheels presented upon arrival in Lebanon, Washington asked Stoy to “do everything in your power” to heal the young man. “I am particularly anxious for his cure,” Washington wrote, “he being my own body servant.” Stoy administered his medicine and wrote to Washington that he could “rest assured Christopher is safe.”3 Washington gave Sheels $25 to cover his expenses on the journey; the valet brought back $12.4 Did Washington’s efforts to get medical help for Sheels indicate genuine affection for the young man or simply an effort to protect a valuable investment?

By 1799 Sheels had married a young enslaved woman owned by Colonel Roger West, whose West Grove plantation lay a few miles north of Mount Vernon. Although the marriage was not legal under Virginia law, Washington recognized and approved of the union—until he discovered a note from the woman to Sheels detailing plans to run away together. Found in the yard at Mount Vernon in September 1799, the note revealed that Sheels and his wife hoped to escape in a ship from Alexandria.5 The young couple’s plan was foiled. No other references to this event appear in Washington’s papers, so we do not know how it affected Sheels’s relationship with his master or whether the young man was punished after the discovery of his plot. If he was, it did not include a demotion: Sheels retained his position as Washington’s valet and, presumably, some degree of his master’s trust.

Just three months later, on December 14, Sheels stood at Washington’s bedside as the retired president battled a throat infection. Washington’s secretary Tobias Lear recalled that Sheels stayed with Washington throughout the day. “In the afternoon,” Lear recounted, “the General observing that Christopher had been standing at his bed side for a long time—made a motion for him to sit in a chair which stood by the bed side.” He sat. When Washington succumbed to his illness late that night, Sheels was one of four enslaved people in the room, along with the housemaids Caroline Branham, Charlotte, and Molly. After his master died, Sheels removed Washington’s keys and personal effects from his master’s pockets and gave them to a grief-stricken Lear.6

Because he owned by the Custis estate, Sheels was not among the 123 enslaved people freed in Washington’s will. Instead, at Martha’s death in 1802 he was probably inherited by her grandson, George Washington Parke Custis, who lived at Arlington House. Then about twenty-seven years old, Sheels was valued at the considerable sum of £120. His younger sister Judy was also sent to Arlington House and eventually became a nanny to the children of Custis’s daughter Mary and her husband, Robert E. Lee.7 Their mother, Alce, and other siblings were inherited by Eliza Parke Custis Law. We have no records of Sheels’s life after this point.

 

Jessie MacLeod
Associate Curator
George Washington's Mount Vernon

 

Notes:

If not specifically cited, biographical and genealogical information about enslaved people has been drawn from Washington’s 1786 and 1799 slave lists: George Washington, Diary, Feb. 18, 1786, and “Washington’s Slave List,” 1799, Founders Online, National Archives. [Original source: The Papers of George Washington, Digital Edition, ed. Theodore J. Crackel, Edward G. Lengel, et al. (Charlottesville: Univ. of Virginia Press, Rotunda, 2008)]; the Mount Vernon slavery database, which compiles references to the estate’s enslaved people; and the files of Mary V. Thompson, Mount Vernon’s research historian. 

1. The origin of Sheels’s last name is unknown. It is possible he was the son of Christopher Shade (sometimes spelled Sheldes), a hired white wagon driver who worked at Mount Vernon from December 1770 to March 1775. For references to Shade’s employment, see Lund Washington, Account Book [microform], 1772–86, p. 54, Washington Library; George Washington, Diary, Dec. 11, 1770, National Archives, Founders Online, [Original source: The Papers of George Washington, Digital Edition]; entries for Christopher Shade, Ledger Book 1, 1750–72, George Washington Papers, 1741–99, Series 5: Financial Papers, 1750–96, Library of Congress, Washington, DC, folio 331L (image 781) memory.loc.gov/ammem/gwhtml/gwseries5.html; Ledger Book 2, 1772–93, George Washington Papers, 1741–99, Series 5: Financial Papers, 1750–96, Library of Congress, Washington, DC, folio 39 (images 76–77); folio 190R (image 379) memory.loc.gov/ammem/gwhtml/gwseries5.html. Alce’s daughter Ariana appears in only one record, from 1778. It is possible that she and Anna are the same person; George Washington to Lund Washington, April 22, 1778, PGWDE.

2. George Washington to Tobias Lear, Sept. 23, 1791, National Archives, Founders Online, [Original source: The Papers of George Washington, Digital Edition].

3. George Washington to William Stoy, Oct. 14, 1797; Stoy to GW, Oct. 19, 1797, National Archives, Founders Online, [Original source: The Papers of George Washington, Digital Edition].

4. George Washington, entry for Oct. 23, 1797, Cash Memoranda, Sept. 1, 1797–Dec. 3, 1799 [photostats], vol. 31-A, Washington Library, from original manuscripts at John Carter Brown Library, Providence, RI, p. 38.

5. George Washington to Roger West, Sept. 19, 1799, National Archives, Founders Online, [Original source: The Papers of George Washington, Digital Edition]. The note between Sheels and his wife does not survive.

6. Tobias Lear, “The last illness and Death of General Washington, Journal Account,” Dec. 15, 1799, National Archives, Founders Online, [Original source: The Papers of George Washington, Digital Edition].

7. Agnes Lee, Growing Up in the 1850s: The Journal of Agnes Lee, ed. Mary Custis Lee deButts (Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1984), 36, 80–81.

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